Man is associated with a driving, pushing force, seeking after honor and glory. Woman is associated with the preservation of the status quo. Men value honor in battle above life. Women value home, marriage, and children. Because for the man what is important is his immortal soul, he promotes death. Women, who are the guardians of the body, champion life. In the Aeneid there is a cosmic war between these two forces – the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the physical. The champion of the masculine is Aeneas, the protagonist of the poem. He is constantly faced by various feminine obstacles, many of which are planted in his path by none other than Juno, the goddess of marriage, the hearth, and childbirth. In the first scene of the poem, Juno is mobilizing all of the force she can to stop Aeneas from reaching his goal. She, the most feminine deity, is Aeneas’ greatest enemy. She constantly causes delays and troubles to Aeneas, but, ultimately, all of her efforts are in vain. Opposed to Juno is her husband Jove, who wishes for his grandson Aeneas to win power and glory in Italy, and supports and encourages him on his journey. In the end of the poem Juno capitulates to Jove, and Aeneas triumphs over her champion, Turnus, in combat. The Aeneid teaches that the physical feminine force will always be subject to the spiritual masculine force. Although it may momentarily gain the upper hand, it will never gain a real victory, because it is inherently weaker. The Aeneid is essentially a song celebrating the victory of the masculine over the feminine, of reason over passion, of the spiritual over the physical.
The poem begins with Aeneas meeting Dido after his shipwreck. Of course, this eventually leads to their romantic involvement. The way that Rumor describes their situation is striking; “in lust, forgetful of their kingdom, they take long pleasure (IV, 255-256).” Their relationship is clearly perceived as unbecoming for a king and a queen. Jove is opposed to the continuation of this romantic involvement because “His lovely mother did not promise such/ a son to us; she did not save him twice/from Grecian arms for this – but to be master of Italy, a land that teems with empire/and seethes with war (IV, 303-307).” It is obvious to Jove that when the values of love and glory come into conflict, the masculine value of glory is to be preferred. While love may be a nice thing, when bought at the expense of glory it is ignoble and disgraceful. Since the Fates have determined that Aeneas is to gain glory in Italy, it is his duty to conquer his passion for Dido and to leave. When Mercury rebukes Aeneas and urges him to leave Carthage and travel on to Italy, he uses even stronger and more explicit language than Jove; “Are you now…servant to a woman…? Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate (IV, 353-357)?” Aeneas heeds their rebukes without delay, and his men “all are glad (IV, 394)” when he gives them orders to make the ships ready for further sailing. They, like Rumor, Jove, and Mercury, had also perceived the behavior of their leader as unbecoming. Aeneas’ forgetfulness of his destiny and his submission to love are inglorious and effeminate. However, he rectifies his shortcomings very quickly when he is made aware of them.
Dido’s reaction to Aeneas’ declaration that he is going to leave is emotional, hysterical, and supremely irrational. She is “a woman driven wild (V, 8).” She upbraids Aeneas for his reticence and lack of emotion – “For did Aeneas groan while I was weeping (IV, 535)?” She then curses Aeneas and threatens revenge, saying “I shall hunt you down with blackened firebrands (IV, 528).” Finally, she commits suicide. She values only family life, claiming to Aeneas that “Had I at least before you left conceived…if there were but a tiny Aeneas playing by me in the hall…then indeed I should not seem so totally abandoned, beaten (IV, 440-445).” To the feminine Dido, being a glorious queen is no consolation to compensate for her frustrated desire for a husband and children. It is Juno, the goddess of mothers and wives and Aeneas’ enemy, who has pity on Dido and eases her death. Aeneas’ calmness and determination in the face of Dido’s love and hysteria can almost be seen as the passing of a test. He proves that his piety and values are real, and cannot be compromised by feminine tricks. Additionally, Aeneas’ voyage from Carthage can be seen as a declaration of identity. He declares by leaving Dido that he values piety and honor above love.
The next feminine event in the Aeneid occurs in book V. While the men are involved in the funeral games for Anchises, the women are by the ships, wishing that they could settle down in Sicily. “They pray to have a city;/they are tired of their trials at sea (V, 812-813).” As women, they are not excited by the prospect of war and glory in Italy. They would rather assimilate into the kingdom of Acestes and build peaceful homes. Juno takes this opportunity to set an obstacle in Aeneas’ way, and sends Iris in disguise to convince the Trojan women to burn the Trojan ships (which is actually something that, in book IV, Mercury warns Aeneas that Dido is planning to do). Iris urges “we chase fleeing Italy…shall never see the Samois and Xanthus, Hector’s rivers? No! Come now and burn these damned ships with me!…Look here for Troy; here is your home (V, 829-842)!” The reasoning that Iris offers is that since the women cannot have their Trojan homes, any hospitable land to which they come is equally good. Iris ignores the idea which Aeneas explains to Dido; “If fate had granted me to guide my life by my own auspices then I should cherish first the town of Troy…but now Grynean Apollo’s oracles would have me seize great Italy…it is right that we…seek out a foreign kingdom (IV, 463-476).” His masculine ideals of power and honor will not allow Aeneas to settle anywhere other than Italy. According to some, the lines in which the matrons pause between the ideals of adventure and glory for their countrymen that are opposed to their ideals of home and comfort are the most poignant in the poem: “Torn between the present land and those that call by fates’ command (translation taken from Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, corresponding to V, 864-5).” The matrons give in to their feminine sides and set fire to the Trojan ships.
Aeneas is more affected by the burning of the ships than by all of Dido’s crying and pleading. Even after Jove has performed a miracle and all but four of the ships have been saved by rain, he sits by the ships and actually considers “whether to settle in the fields of Sicily,/forgetful of the fates, or else to try/ for the Italian coast (V, 925-8).” Perhaps Aeneas’ uncharacteristic despondence and lack of piety result from a feeling of betrayal. Even his own fellow Trojans are unwilling to continue! However, this despondence is only temporary. Anchises appears to him in a vision and encourages him to continue. Armed with new strength, Aeneas continues his journey to Italy.
Once the Trojans do arrive in Italy, the Italian women, animated by another messenger of Juno, Allecto, behave in a manner similar to that of the Trojan women animated by Iris. The Italian queen, Amata, is “kindled by a woman’s anxieties and anger (VII, 445-6)” regarding the prospect of her daughter being given in marriage to a foreigner – Aeneas – instead of Turnus, her Italian betrothed. Amata entertains the feminine values of stability and familiarity, and is annoyed by the fact that her husband is going to upset the status quo. She is also worried that Aeneas is not trustworthy and will take Lavinia away from her. Allecto is apparently more powerful than Iris. The Trojan women hesitate before setting fire to the ships, and are then instantly ashamed of their deed. The Italian women are totally carried away by the madness inspired by Allecto.
“The wretched queen rages through the city…all of the matrons feel the same zeal, kindled by Furies in their breasts, to seek new homes…Amata lifts a blazing firebrand…her cry is savage, sudden: “O Latin mothers, listen now, wherever you are: if any love still lives within your pious hearts for sad Amata, if care for a mother’s rights still gnaws at you, then loose the headbands on your hair, take to these orgies with me.”
This is explicit rebellion of women against men. Fired by Juno, they protest against their husbands’ domination and ignoring of the feminine values, and then run off into the woods to celebrate the traditionally all-female Bacchanalian rites. They do not want progress, danger, honor, and change. They want their home to remain as it was. It is Aeneas who is threatening them, and they oppose him with all of their might.
The account of Camilla in Book XI is almost a story within a story. It is significant that the famous female warrior in this battle is fighting for the general feminine cause – for the preservation of the status quo. She is fighting on the side of Turnus, Lavinia’s Italian betrothed. Fierce and deadly, Camilla has been trained in the arts of war by her father from a young age. In the descriptions of her battle scenes, she seems just like a man. But she is only like a man. Her underlying womanhood is her undoing. Arruns, who is trying to kill her, cannot find an opening until she charges towards Chloreus. She picks out Chloreus because of his elaborate dress combined with her “female’s love of plunder and of spoils (XI, 1038-40)” – that is, with her female love of the material. This female inclination is a weakness, and it betrays her to Arruns’ shaft. So, although in some ways Camilla’s exploits form a story within a story, in other ways they serve to encapsulate the entire theme of the Aeneid into a smaller space. The feminine threat, although it may be menacing for a while, will inevitably disappear, because it is inherently weaker. It will bring about its own destruction.
All of this action occurs against the backdrop of Juno, the goddess of womanhood, desperately trying to stop Aeneas from succeeding. The poem begins with her complaint, “Am I, defeated, simply to stop trying, unable to turn back the Trojan king from Italy. No doubt, the Fates won’t have it…For after this, will anyone adore the majesty of Juno or, before her altar, pray to her (I, 55-74)?” Juno really knows that her efforts will be in vain, but she cannot prevent herself from trying to stop Aeneas. It is she who gives the signal for Aeneas and Dido to meet in a cave during a thunderstorm, she who incites both the Dardan and the Latin women. The goddess of womanhood, she takes advantage of women’s natural inclinations and emotions to further her greater plan of stopping the Trojans from settling from Troy. She tries to appear to be strong, but she knows that she is really weaker. When she sees that Turnus is about to die, she asks Jove to allow her to intervene. He allows only “respite from impending death for the doomed youth (X, 855).” She takes even that, continuing to hope against hope that he – the masculine god -will change his mind, and that she, his wife, will be able to save face. Finally grown impatient, Jove demands of his wife, “What is your plan? What is the hope that keeps you lingering in these chill clouds (XII, 1055-57)?” She, the weaker, finally realizes that she must succumb. There must be honor and glory for the Trojans. Still wanting to save face, she requests that Jove will at least destroy the name of the Trojans, if not their race. Like a parent smiling on an inconsequential child, Jove smiles and yields to her request. Weak, defeated, but not honest enough to admit that she is defeated, Juno agrees and “with gladness…quit(s) the skies, her cloud (XII, 1118-19).” Jove and his champion Aeneas have won. Masculinity has triumphed over femininity.